Figurine it out
Bill Tjhang is making big waves with his small collectibles
When he was growing up, Bill Tjhang’s mind was often occupied with one thought: “How can I make ends meet and improve the life of my family?” Having gone from university dropout to founder of successful figurine-making business Enterbay, Tjhang has evidently stumbled upon the answer to his childhood conundrum somewhere along the way.
Tjhang spent less than a year at university in Australia before deciding the academic route was not for him. “I was working two jobs to pay for my school fees and living expenses. I didn’t think a degree was what I needed at that moment, so I returned to Hong Kong to support my family,” he says.
Without good qualifications, however, Tjhang found it hard to make a living in Hong Kong. After a period of bouncing from job to job without making much progress, he decided to go to Japan to get into the trading business, where he made ends meet by transporting second-hand mobile phones and other electronic devices from Japan to the mainland.
“I was what people today like to call a parallel trader. I transported second-hand mobile phones and other used electronic devices from Japan to the mainland. The profit was not outstanding, but at least I was making ends meet,” he says.
This relatively stable life ended abruptly when Tjhang’s Japanese trading partner took his money and failed to deliver his goods. “I was desperate at that time, with almost no savings in my bank account. I had to find a way out, so I decided to start a figurine business, because I loved figurines,” he says.
The first character that came to mind was Bruce Lee, whom Tjhang had admired since he was a boy. He contacted the Lee family and was given a licence to produce figures of him. Through online research, he also got the support of a figurine artist from South Korea to assist him with the design.
Like most start-ups, capital was the main obstacle. Tjhang asked his friends and relatives to help, but the money they were willing to lend him was only enough to cover the licence fee for the Bruce Lee figurine.
“It was really tough. My relatives were not at all supportive of the idea, thinking I was a fool to invest in toys. The pressure was huge. I had to take care of my family, so there was little room for error,” he says.
Despite not having the money for production, Tjhang released a sample of the Bruce Lee figurine through the internet. This became the major turning point for his business. “In 2005, I released my first product, a 1:6 scale figure of Bruce Lee in his avatar as the protagonist of his unfinished film, Game of Death. The response was overwhelming. I received loads of orders and got enough money to pay for the production of 5,000 figurines,” he says.
The quality of the figurines amazed collectors and fans alike. Never before had the market seen a figurine with such great attention to detail paid to painting, clothing and the materials used. “My products set new standards for figurines. Before Enterbay, figurines generally cost around HK$600. My Bruce Lee figurine was selling for HK$2,400. But fans were not put off because of the supreme quality of the product,” he says.
With the success of the Bruce Lee figurine, Tjhang began adding movie characters to his series, such as Batman and the Terminator, as well as model cars. As his products became more diverse, Tjhang found it more difficult to manage the business. “We relied on small factories on the mainland to produce for us. Only small factories were willing to take orders for producing figures because it was not a huge business. Sometimes, these small factories lacked integrity. I lost a lot of money when one factory leaked my new model car to the market before it was officially released. It was yet another painful fall, but a valuable lesson for me,” he says.
To protect the business, Tjhang decided to develop his own production line. One of the factory workers with whom he had previously worked was planning to open his own factory, but lacked capital. This turned out to be the perfect match. “I financed his factory, and he only produces for me. It is a win-win situation,” Tjhang says.
With a trustworthy production line, Enterbay has grown steadily. In 2009, Tjhang opened his figurine flagship store in Mongkok and has been aggressively expanding his business on the mainland. In June this year, Enterbay he opened a shop in Shanghai and will open a shop in Beijing in November. “Many of my competitors know that the mainland market has huge potential, but at the same time it is also very complicated. I have an advantage because I am familiar with how things work on the mainland. The issues with tax, getting licences to open a shop and managing mainland staff, I have got it all figured out,” he says.
Tjhang’s latest achievement was convincing the National Basketball Association (NBA) to grant licences to Enterbay to produce figurines of its players. “As a small local firm, it was not easy to convince a global brand name like the NBA to work with us. But like all the other obstacles that I have gone through, I believed some day I would succeed if I kept trying. After a few years of negotiating, I finally persuaded the NBA to grant me the licence because they were impressed with the sales figures of the company,” he says.
Being a university drop out, Tjhang says he is looking to go back to school one day to brush up his academic knowledge. “I have a lot of experience operating a business and I think it is time for me to combine the experience with knowledge from books to help me get to another level,” he says.
MAKE FRIENDS, BE UNIQUE
Bill Tjhang gives some tips for developing a business on the mainland
Create your own rules “Don’t be afraid to set new standards by taking competition to a new level.”
Make connections “Guanxi is still a big thing when doing business on the mainland. Getting to know people makes operations much smoother.”
Be unique “Products are easy to copy, but not the operation mode. If you are able to develop a system that is unique, your business will be sustainable.”
Know your customers “[Mainland consumers] are willing to pay for things that they have not seen before. Having decent packaging is also important to make consumers feel that they are getting their money’s worth.”